Sam Mendes’ war films like Jarhead and the current 1917 have tried to replicate the visceral thrill and horror of combat without glorifying it. That’s a tough trick to pull off, and Mendes hasn’t succeeded in either of these, so even though my colleagues at the DFW Film Critics Association voted it as the best movie of 2019, I’m here more than a little regretfully to report that this ambitious and accomplished World War I epic is nothing of the kind.
The film begins on an April day in France with Lance Cpls. Tom Blake and Will Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) receiving orders from a general (Colin Firth). The Germans have fallen back from their position, and a colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) has ordered two battalions after them, thinking that they can break the enemy’s ranks. However, the general has aerial surveillance showing that the Germans are only retreating towards a massive entrenchment armed with enough firepower to wipe out the British pursuers. Blake and Schofield have less than 12 hours to relay the message to the colonel some eight miles distant and stop the attack. Blake has a personal stake in the mission’s success: His older brother (Richard Madden) is among the officers leading the charge.
The film’s main selling point is that it’s shot to look like a single continuous take lasting 119 minutes (more or less, anyway — there’s a definite cut when one corporal takes a sniper’s bullet, falls down a flight of stars, and blacks out). Mendes is also the co-writer here, and he’s too good not to come up with some remarkable incidents, such as one with Schofield finding a group of British soldiers in a forest clearing listening raptly to a soldier’s falsetto version of “Wayfaring Stranger.” Too, there’s the striking visual of Schofield climbing out of the trench and running down the line, perpendicular to the direction of the charging soldiers, while explosions go off and men fall around him. MacKay, the young actor who has made a positive impression on me whether playing a gay teenager in Pride or a mentally damaged war victim in How I Live Now, gives a terrific, gritty performance, moving zombie-like as all the death and devastation around him ages him through that short amount of time.
It’s all technically dazzling, to be sure, but to what end? Other films such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan have done better jobs at bringing home the cost that war takes, particularly on the civilian population. Whereas those, in quite different ways, force you to engage emotionally with the people caught up in the war, 1917 remains frustratingly remote, seldom going beyond its storytelling gimmick. It doesn’t even work to prove that a film can be done this way, because Birdman already did that. (I thought that film was overrated, too.) Instead of insight into what war does to its victims, all it has is bland tribute to the heroism of soldiers, despite all its attempts to complicate that. It’s a movie for those audience members who grow all misty-eyed at the end of the British Empire. It’s a war film for fans of Downton Abbey. As such, it works splendidly. That doesn’t make 1917 a great film.
Starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Rated R.